Feeling Flush and Doing Good

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Reviewed by Robert D. Kaplan
Sunday, September 7, 2008


The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

By Gary J. Bass

Knopf. 509 pp. $35

The more physically secure a Western nation feels, the more likely it is to intervene abroad for humanitarian reasons. This was certainly the case in the 1990s, when, with the Cold War behind us and no obvious threat yet in front of us, the United States intervened in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. At the time, a host of commentators branded such interventions a new phenomenon in international relations. But the 19th century in Europe, thanks to the Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars -- engineered by Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich, British Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh and other statesmen -- was also a time of relative peace, and in the atmosphere of security that followed came a series of humanitarian interventions on behalf of Greeks, Syrian Christians and Bulgarians. In Freedom's Battle, Princeton professor Gary J. Bass recounts them in a lively, subtle and comprehensive manner that sheds a penetrating light on current policy debates.

In the 1820s a trendy, privileged, romantically inclined group of philhellenes, led by the poet Lord Byron, gradually persuaded Great Britain to act against its own geopolitical interests. Though Britain previously had backed Ottoman Turkey as a balance against czarist Russia, these admirers of ancient Greek civilization secured British military aid for Greece's independence struggle against the Turks.

Four decades later, France led a European intervention in Syria to protect Maronite Christians from atrocities committed by the Druze. This was a military intervention that the press played a great role in fomenting and that featured problems of nation-building, mission creep and exit strategies: Once order had been partly reestablished, European forces were pressed to hunt down other criminals in the caves of Lebanon, a move that threatened to produce an endless occupation.

Next, in 1876, a Victorian public had its notion of progress shaken to the core by newspaper reports of the burning and hacking to death of 5,000 Bulgarians in the town of Batak by Ottoman irregulars, known as Bashibazouks. It was this atrocity that set the "thundering moralistic" former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone on the path to toppling the Tory government of Benjamin Disraeli for its indifference to gross human-rights violations in the service of realpolitik. Here, too, the press helped drive policy.

In recounting these and other historical examples, Bass has a singular purpose: to prove that there "really is such a thing as humanitarianism; it is not just veiled imperialism; governments can sometimes be made to send troops not because of self-interest but because of a genuine sense of humanity." Indeed, as he writes, "realism cannot explain away" these 19th-century interventions.

But Bass is not a total opponent of realism, either. He notes that Henry Kissinger "rightly praises" such realists as Castlereagh and Metternich for producing almost a century of peace. And he acknowledges that humanitarianism cannot be separated from issues of power, for "humanitarian intervention is most likely to occur against militarily weak states." In the 19th century, the crimes of Austria and Russia were overlooked, while those of a weaker power like Turkey were not. As Theodore Roosevelt pointed out, Woodrow Wilson could attack Haiti, which was no threat to the United States, even as he sat by during the Armenian genocide because he feared taking on the Ottoman Empire and its patron, Germany.

And the author seems to acknowledge that the United States could intervene in the Balkans but not in the Caucasus -- also a battlefield of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s -- because Russia constituted a much greater power than did the rump of Yugoslavia. In short, he is aware of limits to humanitarianism. More crucially, he knows that some eras in history are more suited for humanitarian intervention than others. He calls our current situation a "Scowcroftian moment," referring to the realist doctrine of former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.

Bass's sense of nuance constitutes the strength of this book, which has the force of a polemic without descending to one. He notes that atrocities were committed by Britain's beloved Greeks as well as by the hated Turks, and that Byron turned to pragmatism in the weeks before his death. Though Castlereagh was the villain of the philhellene interventionists, the author's portrait of him is rich in empathy. He grants the same fairness to the realist Disraeli, even as he carefully notes the eccentricities of the verbose moralist Gladstone, the arch-hero of humanitarianism.

Freedom's Battle also makes clear that humanitarian interventions have always carried risks. Bass informs us of Disraeli's signal dilemma in the face of pressure to intervene against the human-rights abuses of the Ottoman Empire: Were Turkey weakened, Russia would be strengthened, and that could threaten the security of Britain's greatest overseas responsibility, India. Balancing such obligations is tricky for imperial powers. Indeed, the only area where the author may exhibit a certain lack of nuance is in his categorical dislike of empires, even though Rome, Venice and Britain were the most morally enlightened states of their respective ages.

As America draws down its forces in Iraq, and as we gradually reach the limit of our troop strength in Afghanistan, the prospects for humanitarian intervention look better than they did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when homeland security took the air out of other foreign policy concerns. It is even possible that as more liberal regimes come to power in Africa and the Middle East, the focus of such intervention may switch to emergency relief from natural disasters, such as floods, cyclones and tsunamis in coastal and riverine regions of Asia where large, urban concentrations of humanity never existed until the 20th century. In any event, a driving force behind rapid responses to these and other catastrophes will be the incessant moral entreaties of a global media, which, as Bass ably shows us, were entirely familiar to 19th-century European policymakers. ยท

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent of the Atlantic Monthly and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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